Walking the talk
Free sprited walking man eschews excess for life on the road

Author and traveling man James Henry Baker and his trusty walking stick take a break from a cross country book promotion tour to soak up the sun on East Third Avenue on Monday. Baker has been walking this world for more than 10 years./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

James Henry Baker had it all: a high-paying job, a new car and expensive clothes.

But for the young civil engineer fresh out of college, it wasn’t enough.

“I lived the life of excess, and it wasn’t making me happy,” said the 35-year-old Vermont native.

For James, the pivotal point came when he was working on a highway job that required blowing up a mountain to get the road through. He sat atop the mountain as the warning whistle blew once, then twice. Just moments before the explosives went off, he retreated to safety.

“I was the last person to sit where now only birds can fly,” he said. “And I realized that I wasn’t happy anymore.”

From there on out, James traded in his car for a walking stick and a sturdy pair of shoes.

“I just started walking,” he said.

However, the decision was not an attempt to escape from his life, so much as an effort to embrace it, said James, who, in addition to “walking man,” counts storyteller, mechanic, tour guide and writer among his trades.

By James’s accounts, he’s been walking for more than 10 years. However, when asked to recount how many countries or miles he has logged, he is hard-pressed.

“I’ve gone through a lot of shoes,” he offers (Scarpa are the best).

Perhaps he does not keep track because it would go against his plan, which is really to have no plan. Thus far such an approach has landed him in South Africa, where he witnessed Nelson Mandela take power; Belgium, where he met his girlfriend, Sophie; the Balkans, where he followed the Danube River to its delta at the Black Sea; and New Orleans, where he celebrated Mardi Gras.

Indeed, James’s lively, lilting speech, hinting at a South African accent and peppered with Euro sayings such as “petrol” and “university,” pays testament to his time abroad.

“I’ve gone long periods of time without speaking English,” he said.

Perhaps the longest period was James’s walk along the Danube River. The 4,300 kilometer “walk” took James from Vienna to the Black Sea, back to Vienna, and eventually to the river’s source in the Black Forest of Germany. Unbeknowst to him at the time, James also was making a journey of self discovery. It wasn’t until several years later that he realized the importance of this journey and wrote it down in a book, Promise to a Stone. He is currently traveling the country promoting the self-published book from his VW Eurovan, Foster – the irony of which is not lost on James.

“It’s hard to put 800 books in a backpack,” said Sophie, who has accompanied James on his cross country jaunt.

However, James is quick to point out that the car is as techno as he goes.

“I’m about as high tech as my walking stick,” he said. The couple has no phone, they check e-mails via public libraries 4 and prefer farmer’s fields to motel beds.

Nevertheless, even such an austere lifestyle must require some money. James said he is commonly asked how, which no real job, he manages to survive and addresses the subject in his book.

“I am not rich, nor is m family,” he says, reciting a passage from Promise to a Stone. “I’m independently impoverished.

“My work is my life 85 and in this way, money just happens.”

While sometimes there is just no getting around money (say, for petrol for Foster), James prefers the ages-old bartering method. Indeed, even Foster was bought for the sum of $1,000 and two books. In return, James received the van and a dozen eggs. So far, the book thing seems to be working – at least in certain sectors. Since arriving in Durango, James has traded the books for pints at Carvers as well as an 18-pack of Coors at the liquor store in Hermosa. And when he can’t offer something of value to trade, James offers up his services.

“I’ve done dishes in 40 countries,” he said.

Aside from this, James also admits a lot of his good fortune has to do with plain, old-fashioned luck.

“We’re notorious for being lost in the right place at the right time,” he said.

In fact, the couple was scarcely in Durango for a day when they met a farmer who took them in, gave them a place to sleep and cooked them a three-course gourmet meal. In return, James gave him the Coors.

Baker strolls Durango’s southside on Monday afternoon./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

For James, that’s what being a walking man is all about.

“It’s about making connections and breaking down walls,” he said.

Indeed, the good karma even followed James on a recent foray to Telluride. Upon paying a visit to a local tavern, he realized someone had wandered off with his beloved walking stick. He rallied the support of the locals, and by 8 o’clock the next morning, the walking stick was returned, propped up against the bar’s front door.

As happy as James was to see the return of his stick, he said if it had disappeared forever, he would have just picked up and moved on. After all, being a walking man, he’s seen his fair share of walking sticks and has learned enough to know that when one trail ends, another often begins.

His only advice?

“Lace on your shoes very tightly when you leave the house, because you never know where you are going to end up.”






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